By MARK BLANKENSHIP
When you step into Stage Left Studio, you might think you’re seeing a mirage. A jewel box theatre with less than forty seats, it’s incongruously tucked on the fifth floor of an industrial building near Times Square, on one of those colorless New York blocks where the functional gray buildings blur into broken cement. The hallway leading to the theatre is just as drab, all fluorescent lights and grimly efficient paint. But then you step through the door, and… art.
Like a rebuke to its drab neighborhood, the lobby of the Stage Left space bursts with funky paintings, interesting furniture, and splashy postcards for upcoming shows. It has the coziness that you sometimes find in tiny New York spaces, where every square inch has been covered with something lively.
That sense carries to the theatre itself, where ingenious construction allows a light booth, storage space, and several rows of chairs to squeeze before a slightly raised stage that sits in front of enormous windows.
Stage Left’s intimacy makes it an ideal environment for solo theatre, a genre that depends on the connection between a performer and an audience. Since 2006, someone has performed a solo piece there almost every night, and the work has encompassed dozens of styles. Currently, Mondays belong to Fearless Moral Inventory (pictured on the homepage), in which Frank Blocker plays sixty-four characters who are all facing a personal reckoning. Meanwhile, April marks the return of the Left Out Festival, dedicated to queer solo theatre, and Forbidden Kiss, a regular series of erotic material.
Cheryl King, the founder and artistic director of Stage Left, aggressively searches for diverse material. “There’s a lot of transgressive work going on here, but that’s the kind of solo performance I’m interested in,” she says. “People are tired of the ‘how I came to New York’ shows or ‘how my mom and dad mistreated me.’ You’ve got to have something original. Why does the audience want to see your show? Why do they care? It’s got to be important to more people than just you.”
Fair enough: We don’t need another navel-gazing solo play about the traumatic loss of cat. But what do people want? What can make solo theatre feel exciting?
King, who writes and performs her own solo material, says that right now, there’s a trend toward multimedia performance. That’s why she had a projector installed in a cleverly hidden ledge just below the theatre’s light booth.
But she also sees a bigger trend. “I think people want to know how to manage in a world that’s fragmented,” she says. “Internet, cell phones, people living far away from their families: How do we find a sense of community? What avenues are available to us to feel close to people?”
That idea certainly drives Fearless Moral Inventory. Describing his goal for the show, Blocker says, “My hope is that you meet a cavalcade of people, and they’re people that you don’t necessarily like or wouldn’t necessarily get to know. And hopefully, it makes you learn to care about them. Hopefully, at the end you’re going, ‘Well, how much of this was me? How much of me is in people that I meet and can’t stand sometimes?”
Audiences seem to be interested in the questions, too. Shows at Stage Left frequently sell out, despite the fact that King has done almost no traditional advertising. She relies on word of mouth and recently, on Theatre Development Fund’s Off-Off @$9 program, which lets TDF members sample a wide variety of Off-Off Broadway shows for $9 per ticket. Since its inception last July, the program has sold over 12,000 tickets, and according to King, the ticket buyers are as interested in edgy material as she is. “The TDF audiences are intelligent theatregoers,” she says. “They’re respectful. They get involved. They pay attention. They’re interested in what we’re doing here.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor